Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Arizona's immigration bill won't make much difference

Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last Friday, has the nation's knickers in a knot. I agree with President Obama, who called the law
a "misguided" piece of legislation that "threaten[s] to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe. "
In spite of the law's claim to reject racial profiling, its first effect will surely be to increase harassment of Hispanics. For many of the law's supporters, however, this is not a drawback. Indeed, it is the main benefit of the legislation - not to send all undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin, but to scare the ones who stay.

Think about it. If you ran a business that required a large number of unskilled workers - people who would pick vegetables, for instance, or slaughter pigs - fear could be your ally. Hire a man who is desperate for money and tell him that one misstep will put him on the bus to Nogales. He's not going to complain too loudly if his wages drop below the federally mandated minimum, or if he doesn't get health insurance or sick leave, or if he is required to work 12 or more hours a day with no overtime pay, or even if he is injured while working in dangerous conditions. He's certainly not going to join a union and demand fair labor practices. In fact, he may make his pre-adolescent children join him in the fields. He'll let you get away with a lot, because your small paycheck beats no paycheck at all. And then, when you don't need him anymore, you can lay him off. He can't do anything about it.

Yes, if you treat him that way, you are breaking Arizona's law, which -  like federal law and the laws of all other states - makes it illegal to employ and then mistreat undocumented immigrants. The problem is that these laws are rarely enforced. According to journalist and political activist Deborah White,
In 1999, under President Bill Clinton, the US government collected $3.69 million in fines from 890 companies for employing undocumented workers. In 2004, under President George Bush, the federal government collected $188,500 from 64 companies for such illegal employment practices. And in 2004, the Bush Administration levied NO fines for US companies employing undocumented workers.
Has there been a change under President Obama? Law professor Kris W. Kobach, defending Arizona's law in today's New York Times, says that "the Obama administration has scaled back work-site enforcement and otherwise shown it does not consider immigration laws to be a high priority." By contrast, Greg Moran, writing Sunday in San Diego's Union-Tribune, refers to "a stepped-up effort by the Obama administration to attack illegal immigration by cracking down on the employers who hire them." Whatever the truth about the present administration, the situation continues to be grave. According to the United Farm Workers of America's website,
Federal reports indicate between 50 percent and two-thirds of U.S. farm workers are undocumented. The UFW’s experience in areas where it is active, including the Central Valley, is that it is 90 percent or more.
Q. Why aren't we conducting massive raids on businesses so grossly violating federal and state law? Wouldn't that be more effective than targeting the immigrants themselves?

A. Yes, of course. Mexicans don't move to Arizona because they like the sunsets. But if every American business that employs undocumented workers were heavily fined, repeat violators were shut down, and undocumented employees were returned to their native lands, the food industry would collapse.

The collapse would not be permanent, of course. We have to eat. Businesses that formerly hired illegal immigrants would scramble to hire American citizens and legal immigrants. In order to do so, they would have to give their employees legally mandated protections. This would in turn dramatically increase the price of food. Voters - even the ones that backed get-tough laws against illegal immigrants - would be outraged.

Interestingly, if we changed our laws in the other direction and gave every undocumented worker in America a green card, prices would also skyrocket. Legal workers get legal protections, and this greatly increases the cost of human resources. Voters - even the ones that backed amnesty and permanent residency for illegal immigrants - might be less enthusiastic about paying double for food.

And that is why I think Arizona's legislation - and indeed, reforms currently under discussion by the administration - won't make much difference. Politicians depend on voters, and voters do not like rising prices. Politicians also depend on major financial contributors, and agribusiness spends big on PAC contributions and lobbying. One of the easiest ways to keep food prices low and agribusiness happy is to keep the workforce scared.

So I expect to see a flurry of state laws aimed at pacifying nativists and frightening foreigners. Some undocumented workers will be rounded up and shipped home. Most will not. Business will continue as usual. In the words of Amos the shepherd, we affluent Americans will continue to "sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, ... [to] trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Probable cause" : driving while appearing hispanic

Last weekend my friend Ben Lowe was heading toward Chicago with three friends, all Wheaton College graduates, when an unmarked police car pulled them over. One of the cops explained to the driver that there is "a problem with Hispanics coming from the western suburbs into Chicago" and "carrying drugs in their vehicles."

As it happens, none of the men is Hispanic (which is irrelevant anyway, since ethnicity is no reason to stop a law-abiding driver), and there were no drugs in the vehicle. Ben, however, is the Democratic nominee from the 6th Congressional District, and Ben is not happy.

You can read his account of what happened on his blog. If you'd like to read the raw notes he took shortly after the incident, continue reading this post. Predictably, the police are denying the incident to reporters.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review of Anne Tyler: "Noah's Compass"

Ever since I discovered Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I've loved Anne Tyler's Baltimore, her offbeat people, her insights into what makes individuals - and families - tick. Most of all, I enjoy her ability to evoke a character in a few deft and often funny lines. Take this exchange, for example, from her newest novel, Noah's Compass:
He said, "The divorce was Barbara's idea, not mine. I don't even believe in divorce; I've always felt marriages are meant to be permanent. If it were up to me, we'd still be together."

"What was she unhappy about?" Eunice asked.

"Oh," he said, "I guess she felt I wasn't, um, forthcoming."

Eunice went on looking at him expectantly.

He turned his palms up. What more could he say?
 I began reading Noah's Compass, not only because I enjoy Anne Tyler, but also because the dust-jacket description looked promising: " ... a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life."

I realize that people who write marketing copy rarely have time to read the whole book, but they should get beyond the first page - and editors should check their work. Liam Pennywell is "in the sixty-first year of his life," which makes him 60, not 61, as Tyler mentions at least eight times. He has been teaching but is not, at heart, a schoolteacher. He has lost his job, but this does not mean he has to retire. He is not in the final phase of his life (though he seems willing to go there) - his health is good, and his father is still alive and strong. And, most important, he doesn't really come to terms with anything.

The copywriter is right, however, about the book's wisdom, humor, and compassion.

Liam Pennywell is widowed, divorced, newly laid off, and, by chapter two, convalescent. He has a sister, a father, a stepmother, a friendly ex-wife, three daughters, and a grandson, but he lives alone and has little to do with any of his family members. A sudden crisis brings them all back into his life. His bossy sister brings dinner (beef stew, and he eats no red meat); his youngest daughter moves in with him; his middle daughter expects him to baby-sit; and Eunice ... well, she's about as opposite from him as a person could be, and she's amazingly persistent. His life, which had become as stark as his new apartment, seems suddenly richer.

But that's an outsider's opinion. Mine, and probably Tyler's. For Liam, life just seems messier and noisier. This is a man, after all, who "really enjoyed a good movie. He found it restful to watch people's conversations without being expected to join in." This a man who looks forward to being alone on Christmas Day.

If I were discussing Noah's Compass in a book group, I'd point out that the end of the book sounds a lot like its beginning. I'd like to hear what others think will happen next in Liam's life. Have six tumultuous months changed him in any essential way? Or is he going to give in to senescence well before he's even eligible for Medicare?

As for the title, you'll figure it out in chapter 11. If you're impatient, just ask yourself : Did Noah have a compass? Did he need one? Why or why not?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The political center : equal spending for all

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

In today's New York Times, David Brooks laments the loss of the political center. "In the first year of the Obama administration," he writes, "the Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, decided to put the big government-versus-small government debate at the center of American life." The result is polarization, with a strong tilt to the "antigovernment right." Brooks, who is somewhat right of center himself, does not call this "mere anarchy."

Indeed, the internet is full of anger against what many people see as "a federal onslaught," but Brooks must be referring to spin rather than facts when he characterizes Democrats as the big government party and Republicans as the small government party. That, of course, is what Republicans would like us to believe: they have been characterizing Democrats as the "tax and spend" party since FDR's time.

I decided to find out just how committed to big government Democrats really are. I was sure they spent more on government programs than Republicans did, but how much more?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review of "Not Becoming My Mother" by Ruth Reichl

 Show me a woman who has never looked in the mirror and gasped in horror at the sight of her mother looking back at her, and I'll show you a woman who can resist picking up a book called Not Becoming My Mother. I was alarmed the first time my mirror channeled my mom, and mortified when my daughters reported - in obvious panic - that their mirrors were channeling me. Some things a girl just shouldn't say to her mother.

Some things a girl shouldn't say about her mother, either, and for years Ruth Reichl felt vaguely guilty about her three compulsively readable memoirs in which her wacky mother, Miriam, frequently contributes to the hilarity. After the first memoir was published, Reichl writes, "I could not keep from thinking I had betrayed my mother. It was not a good feeling, and I wanted to make it up to her." Two books later, she was "getting deeper into [her] mother's debt." But she still could not bring herself to begin going through the box of letters, notes, and clippings that had been stashed in the basement ever since her mother's death:
Like most women, I decided who my mother was long ago, sometime during childhood.... I had spent many years making peace with her. Her voice was no longer inside my head and it was a relief to have all that behind me. I was reluctant to replace the mother I thought I knew with someone else. Why go looking for trouble?
In the year that her mother would have turned 100, Reichl finally blew the dirt off the box her father had labeled "Miriam's Life and Letters," removed the top, and started to read.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Getting around Facebook's latest assault on privacy

Note: If Facebook hasn't already sent you the pop-up message requiring you to link your personal information to Facebook pages, bookmark this Web page and come back to it when you need it.

Once again Facebook has made changes that will open up more of our information to marketers and, presumably, scammers and stalkers.

Potential privacy problems
Most of us include personal information on our Info page: for example, our favorite books, employment, schools, or current city. With FB's new approach - coming soon if it hasn't come already to your FB account - most of that personal information will be linked to FB pages. A pop-up message will give you a choice: you can link your info to a suggested FB page, or you can let FB delete the info altogether.

As Miguel Helft explained in an article in Sunday's New York Times, this "will allow Facebook to keep a record of what a user linked to, providing the company with ever more data about people’s preferences. Facebook, in turn, plans to share that data with Web publishers, so that a magazine Web site, for instance, may be able to show users all the articles that their friends like."

Perhaps there's no reason for concern: most of us FB users already link to pages, and marketers already know a scary amount about us. But there are potential problems that go beyond becoming the target of more and more marketers. Do I really want to connect with everybody else who claims an interest in, say, Yorkshire terriers or Madeleine Peyroux? Do I want my teenage grandchildren connecting with strangers who claim to share their love of Glee or Girl Scouts?

And yet, do I want to settle for a plain, uninteresting Info page that tells my friends nothing at all about me?

Protect personal information
If you don't like the new FB set-up, here's a three-step way to protect your privacy while still telling your friends that you adore stuffed bears, the Chicago Cubs, and the state of California.

1. Keep anonymous FB users away from your personal information. (Do this even if you passionately love the new set-up, by the way.) Click "Account" (upper right-hand corner), and then click "Privacy Settings" (on drop-down list). Click "Personal Information and Posts," and then click "Preview My Profile..." (right side of bar at top of page). What you see is what any FB member - friend, stranger, marketer, or pedophile - can see about you. If you've told the world too much, immediately click "Back to Privacy Settings" and then open up each page and work through all the options. You'll want to allow "Everyone" to see some of your info, but most of it should be available to "Only Friends."

2. Get rid of all or most of your current FB pages and refuse to add more. This is the best way to avoid giving information to marketers, who apparently have access to your FB page info even if you hide it from FB non-friends. Thanks to Joel, who pointed out (see comments below) an easy way to do this: Click "Account" (upper right-hand corner), and then click "Edit Friends." Scroll down the left-hand column and click "Pages." Click the X after any page you want to remove. (Alternately, you can use the more complicated method I originally suggested: go to each page separately, scroll way to the bottom, and click "Unlike" in the left-hand column.) The downside to deleting pages is that your Info page will no longer list your interests. But there's a work-around ...

3. Put a paragraph describing your interests on your Info page. Do this by clicking "Profile," then "Info," then "Edit" (in the "About Me" section). Scroll down the form to "Bio" and write whatever you want people to know about you. You can list your interests there without linking to any pages.

Here's what I wrote in my Bio paragraph, which I allow Everyone to see:
I read, review, blog, consult, and cook. I spend as much time as possible with friends, family, and dogs. I once listed some specific interests (Alexander McCall Smith, Harry Potter, the English language, la langue fran├žaise, ginger ice cream, etc.) in the "Likes and Interests" section on this page, but I don't like FB's current insistence on linking every interest to a FB page. I like to be connected to friends, but I see no reason to increase my connection to marketers and scammers.
You can read more about the latest Facebook changes at PCMag  or PCWorld. For a positive spin on what's happening at Facebook, read today's CNN account of an address by Facebook's CEO, who "hopes to turn the web into one big cocktail party."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Big Brother hopes you'll shop at his store

Even when I was very small I hated the Sunday-school song that begins
O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There's a Father up above
And he's looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see
The song then advises the child to take equal care of his or her ears, hands, feet, and mouth. You never know when that all-seeing God, loving though he may be, is going to smite you.

I couldn't find out when the song was written - I learned it in the early 1950s - but its secular version comes from 1934:
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
Unlike God, Santa Claus doesn't claim that his omniscient spying is love-based. He is, however, coming to town with a bagful of presents, so the child who understands enlightened self-interest had better watch out.

In today's New York Times, Stephanie Clifford offers yet another reason to watch out: "Web Coupons Know Lots About You, and They Tell."  She writes:
A new breed of coupon, printed from the Internet or sent to mobile phones, is packed with information about the customer who uses it. While the coupons look standard, their bar codes can be loaded with a startling amount of data, including identification about the customer, Internet address, Facebook page information and even the search terms the customer used to find the coupon in the first place.
God and Santa Claus, I've been told, can't be blocked. They know everything I think and do. Fortunately, retail marketers, like the devil, don't have that capability unless I hand it over to them. But it's so easy to let the marketers in. All I have to do is use an internet coupon for free shipping or 20% off.

At least God and Santa Claus use their information in order to offer me things I want, like eternal life and Christmas presents. And they give me these things free of charge, apart from their insistence on reasonably good behavior. Retail marketers, by contrast, offer only more marketing, finely tuned to my personal preferences so that I will covet their stuff and pout if I don't get it.

But wait - won't that jeopardize my standing with God and Santa Claus?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There's always something to worry about

I am going through two cedar chests stuffed with family photos, letters, baby shoes, wedding invitations, condolence cards, and everything else that my grandmothers thought worthy of saving - and that escaped my mother's periodic purges.

I am now the matriarch, the grandmother, the keeper and purger of memorabilia. It's a hard job, this sorting and labeling. Everything must be read, sometimes two or three times. Letters raise questions that demand research. I may never finish this job.

Meanwhile, I am finding strange reassurance in the voices from my family's past. Apart from Uncle Erwin, who died from TB in 1912 at age 20, most of my relatives lived long and, if they didn't prosper, neither did they starve. Great-grandmother Harriet (front row, second from left in the 1908 photo above) lived 87 years; Great-aunt Mabel (front row left), 103; Grandmother Eda (front row right), 91; Great-great Aunt Emma, somewhere between 101 and 104.

And yet they worried about the same things that worry us still:
Populist uprising against excessive government spending
About 1910, probably from a high-school speech by Erwin Pease : "A protest is arising from all parts of the country against the indiscriminate expenditure of public funds. 'Economy' has been adopted as the watchword of the present administration; but, as long as a large part of the American dollar is spent for things other than necessities, can we expect a marked improvement in governmental expenditure?"

Hospital infections
July 25, 1920, Mary Knisely to Harriet Schaper : "I wonder if you know that your cousin Minerva McCeown Lehman died a few weeks ago. She was at a hospital taking treatment for nervousness when she tore her fingernail off and blood poisoning set in and killed her."

Price gouging
November 29, 1924, Emma J. Knisely to her sister, Harriet Schaper, after explaining that good raisins cost 50 cents a pound : "Now it seems ridiculous when we know that the rancher only gets 2 1/2 cts per lb. for the best. It seems they have Sociations and the Rancher signs an agreement to sell all he has to them and it makes it hard to buy anything from them and we have almost quit trying.... The Merchants stick together and let things spoil before they will sell at a reasonable price."

March 27, 1925, Eda Pease to her mother, Harriet Schaper : "We are not safe any where. In Portland so many houses are robbed. In Eugene some thieves took everything there was in one small store."

December 30, 1947, Norval Pease to his mother, Eda Pease : "No end of work, even during vacation."

Weather disasters
December 30, 1955, Mabel Buck to her sister, Eda Pease : "Have had such a rainy spell, and so much flooding, we are miles from it, but reports say it has been the worst disaster since the 1906 earthquake disaster."
Some of my relatives spent most of their long lives fearfully considering the evils that might befall them. Others - primarily the ones who had moved to California - preferred to write about the fine winter weather and lovely flowers. This may be a lesson on worry: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow : for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matthew 6:34). Or maybe it's just one more good reason to move back to California.

Book recommendation: The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible! by Otto L. Bettmann.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The second-best book on the Sabbath

"The Sabbath, I said, is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people." 
- Judith Shulevitz

If you read only one book about the Sabbath, it should be Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1951 classic. If you have time to read another one, I recommend a book that was published just last week: The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz. (If you don't have time to read either book, you need both of them more than you realize.)

I grew up keeping Sabbath. My parents were staunch Seventh-day Adventists, and every week by late Friday afternoon the house was clean, the next day's food was cooked, and baths were taken. Fridays were hell, but they ensured that for the next 24 hours we would have a total respite from paid work, house work, yard work, and school work. As a basically lazy person whose responsible behavior was motivated by guilt, I appreciated the weekly shift : every Sabbath, guilt attached itself not to sloth but to work.

In the three decades since I left the Adventist church, I have read a variety of Protestant books about the Sabbath. Most refer to the Jewish Sabbath, offer some wisdom about the Western enslavement to work, and suggest taking time off for worship and restoration : weekly, if possible (Tuesdays would be fine), less often if necessary, and don't forget the annual vacation. Good counsel, to be sure - but from authors who do not understand Sabbath because they have never really lived it.

Judith Shulevitz understands Sabbath.

My friend the orthodox rabbi might disagree, since he has kept Sabbath faithfully for over 60 years while Shulevitz keeps "the Sabbath, but only halfway - by strict Jewish standards, at least - which sometimes feels fine and sometimes feels shameful but has come to feel inevitable.... Probably the only way for me to trick myself into being shomer Shabbat," she writes, "would be to restrict myself to circles where such behavior is the norm, not subject to constant question."

Shulevitz's disclaimer is one reason I find her understanding of Sabbath so much deeper than that of most contemporary Protestants (though not than that of the observant rabbi) : she knows you can't keep a real Sabbath on your own. Sabbath is a community affair, and no amount of individual days off can replicate it, even if you spend part of your Sabbath time in church.

Not only is Sabbath impossible without community, but community is much harder to create without Sabbath. "People who study the ways in which cultures evolve might say that the Sabbath gives societies a competitive advantage. It promotes social solidarity," Shulevitz writes. It does this by limiting work time in order to allow time for social bonding, by giving everyone the same day off so they can do things together, by insisting that this day be observed every week so that it becomes a habit, and by making the day festive, "filled with song, wine, food, and pretty clothes."

Adventists didn't get the memo about wine, but the SDA enclaves of my youth excelled in the other three categories, plus nature walks and games involving Bible verses. A festive day it was and still is, according to frequent Friday-afternoon status updates by my still-SDA Facebook friends. Now tired, overworked, fragmented adults, many of them can't wait for the sun to go down so that Sabbath can begin.

They may be as interested as I was by Shulevitz's brief but accurate history of the Christian Sabbath. Her handling of the Sabbath-to-Sunday switch is essentially what I learned from Seventh-day Adventist seminary professors, and Adventists may see traces of their own heritage in her comments on Sabbath and Bible reading, the Puritan Sabbath, the Transylvanian Sabbath (who knew?) and religious liberty, and the evangelical and romantic Sabbaths of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Shulevitz, who has written for Slate, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, calls this book spiritual autobiography, but she focuses much more on Sabbath than on herself. She may begin a paragraph with "Sometimes I think that drinking wine is the only form of religiosity I can consistently muster," but before the next indent she will mention Elliott Horowitz, a contemporary social historian; the first-century biographer Plutarch; a 17th-century rabbi from Frankfurt; Passover rituals; and the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Sometimes her erudition is dizzying, but it is never heavy-handed. "Wine," the paragraph concludes, "is the Sabbath in a bottle."

The book is already attracting a lot of media attention. For example, read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's highly personal review/response, "On the Seventh Day," in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (March 25), or listen to Terry Gross's interview of Shulevitz on NPR's Fresh Air (March 31). If you're reading this today, April 1, a real treat is in store for you : Shulevitz will be tonight's guest of honor on  The Colbert Report (no foolin').